LAST EDITED ON May-24-07 AT 03:50 AM (EDT)
From the Journal of Gen. Rossum
2006.09.27: Another day, another miserable, pointless crime. I didn't set out to be a criminal, but of course that's what I've become. It's the only way to survive in this hellhole of a country, especially when Recluse's lackeys have made your name and face known throughout the Isles as one of their so-called "Destined". God knows I've tried to keep my head down, tried not to do anything I wouldn't be able to live with later.
Since I arrived here the only thing I've wanted was to leave, but it's not proving as easy as I thought it would be. They pretend that we "Destined" are free agents, but we're watched constantly. Recluse's people watch the ports, the comings and goings. They're especially vigilant when one of us ends up being sent to Paragon for some reason. There are no words for the torture that is a trip to Paragon. To see the skyline, breathe the air... knowing that I'm there to commit some act that will make me even more reviled in my hometown, and that any attempt to deviate from the task before me or escape into the underground will only earn me a bullet to the back of the head.
Some days I wish I had the courage to take that bullet rather than become what they want me to become.
Today wasn't that bad. Circle of Thorns cultists stole a valuable artifact from the Paragon Museum; I tracked them down and took it from them. I don't shed tears over those Circle freaks. The scum deserve what they get and worse. I feel a little bad about selling the artifact back to the museum through an intermediary rather than just returning it... but a girl has to eat, after all, and they can afford it.
Thursday, September 28, 2006
Cap au Diable, Etoile Islands ("The Rogue Isles")
Jennifer Rossum, known to the authorities of the United States and a few international agencies as the self-styled "General" Rossum (alias Ilyana Rosumova, alias Jennifer Ross, etc.), didn't look particularly formidable on this particular Thursday morning. She was never terribly intimidating on her own anyway; being a slender teenage girl of slightly less than average height didn't lend itself to intimidation. Still, when she had her black leather jacket and trousers, her rocket boots, and her mask on, and let her pulse rifle and her robots do the talking, she did command a certain... respect from most adversaries.
Today, as she sat at the table in the makeshift kitchen of her secret lair beneath the streets of New Haven, she was dressed in much less imposing clothes - a black tank top and some ratty old grey cargo pants. With her prematurely white hair still damp and slicked back on her head from the shower and the morning's Rogue Isles Protector in front of her, she looked considerably more like the normal teenager she should've been than what she'd become.
At least if you weren't looking at her from an angle that made her rather crude cybernetic right eye obvious.
The powered door at the end of the kitchen opened, admitting a hulking metallic form. Heavily armored, with clearly visible weapon mounts, the ten-foot-tall machine was obviously built for destruction. It stalked into the room with a relentless gait, a one-robot army, making straight for the table and the girl seated behind it -
- and put down a tray on the table with the delicate touch of an expert waiter in a five-star hotel, whipping away a metal dome to reveal pancakes, sausage, and a glass of OJ.
"Thank you, 76," said Jen.
No. 76, the mightiest and longest-serving of her robotic army, bowed and withdrew.
After a leisurely breakfast - no crime on the agenda today, for once - Jen left the kitchen and went into her workshop, the real nerve center of the Factory, as she fancifully called her underground lair. The largest room in the complex of subterranean chambers, it had once been some kind of control center for a long-abandoned light rail system, begun back in the 1950s and then canceled when Arachnos seized control of the islands. Now it was full of long tables and workbenches. These were mostly strewn with mechanical bric-a-brac: robot parts, tools, bits of various gadgets the General used in her trade. One had a partially dismantled hoverpod forcefield generator on it, while another held up a field-stripped laser cannon array for one of her battle drones.
Jen sighed, puffing out her bottom lip to blow stray locks of hair out of her face, and surveyed the room, hands on hips.
"Definitely time to clean up in here a little," she remarked to herself.
She put away some tools, sorted out the bits of a few projects she hadn't quite finished yet, and then noticed a bundle of curled, yellowish papers on the corner of the bench.
"Hm," she said, picking them up. It took her a moment to remember where they'd come from. They had been wrapped somewhat haphazardly around the artifact the Circle of Thorns stole from the Paragon City Museum.
Probably inventory sheets from the museum acquisitions office or something, she thought, and made to screw them up and toss them into the wastebasket in the corner - but just before she closed her hands, something on one of the sheets caught her eye. Curiosity piqued, she cleared a space on the bench and smoothed the papers out instead.
What she found was definitely not just bureaucratic documentation from the museum. These appeared to be pages torn from a notebook - an old one. Yellowed with age, they had markings in time-browned ink on them: notes scribbled in a barely legible hand, along with freehand mechanical diagrams of a startling complexity and sophistication, especially set against the crudity of the rendering. They looked like they'd been done with a fountain pen, and by a person not very fastidious about blotting.
An electric thrill shot through Jen's heart at the sight of them.
I know this handwriting, she realized, her one remaining blue eye going wide with surprise.
Aloud, she murmured, "This... those crystal-gazing idiots. This is the real treasure... "
Two hours later, fully kitted out in her "working clothes", she stood under the giant atom in the center of Aeon City, waiting. She'd come alone, though of course her robot army was just an encrypted UHF transmission away. Nobody would try anything here anyway, not under the watchful sensors of the Arachnos arbiter drones stationed around the plaza - not to mention Arbiter Howe. Still, she couldn't help but feel a little nervous. The contact she was meeting always gave her the creeps.
"Ah, General Rossum," said a deep, resonant voice behind her. Jen stifled a yelp of surprise and kept her face impassive as she turned to see a hulking mechanical shape that was definitely not one of her 'bots. This creature was built in an entirely different style, crude-looking, almost antiquated - and it was surmounted by a one-eyed, steamshovel-jawed turret of a head topped with a wire-festooned human brain under a transparent dome.
"They Saved the Brain," Jen said with a coolness she didn't feel. "Nice of you to agree to meet me on such short notice."
The hideous cyborg steepled steel claws like fingers before its barrel chest. "For you, my dear, no notice is too short. What can this humble brain do for you today?"
"I found something interesting," Jen replied, forcing herself not to grimace. "Pretty sure I already know what it is, but another expert opinion never hurts." She handed him a photocopy of one of the note pages.
They Saved the Brain pincered the page in one of its claws and held it close to its single, glowing optic. "Hmm. Mmm... ? Mm! Very interesting." The cyborg lowered the diagram and tilted its head curiously at Jen. "Where did you acquire this?"
"I found it," Jen replied shortly. "Is it genuine?"
"It would help if I knew what it was," They Saved the Brain replied. "Do you have the rest of the pages?"
"No. If you can't say for certain, just take your best guess."
They Saved the Brain drew itself up huffily. "I can always say for certain," it intoned. Then, backing down a little, it went on, "And in this case, I'm certain your suspicion is correct." It held up the paper. "I can keep this?"
Jen frowned. "If you insist," she said.
2006.09.29: I didn't really mind Brain keeping that one page. I had specifically picked it out as the one least likely to cause any trouble. It was the first page in the set, and had nothing on it but some general background information - stuff a scientist like, uh, "him" would already know. From what was on that page, he wouldn't even be able to tell what the notes were a description of. I didn't have an easy time of that myself. It didn't help that the last page seems to be missing - probably still sitting on the bench in Acquisitions where the Circle jerks grabbed the rest to wrap up their booty. Even with all the rest of the pages in my hands, it took me a long night of hot coffee and headscratching to figure it out.
But I know now. I know who wrote these notes, and I know what he was describing.
These notes came from the hand of my all-time hero, the great Nikola Tesla.
And what they describe is going to be my ticket out of here.
Tuesday, October 24, 2006
Universal Export Warehouse
Sharkhead Isle, Etoile Islands
The machine was surprisingly small, given how difficult and expensive it had been to build. It was a metal platform with what looked like a giant flanged Van de Graaff generator hanging above it and an eight-foot-tall Tesla coil standing on either side. The secondary equipment required to make it work - the enormous generators and condensers, the complicated electromechanical computer system - actually took up several times as much room as the device itself.
Assembling the exotic materials and acquiring the specialized tools needed to build the machine - as well as the funds required to purchase the more mundane but pricey parts - had prompted a month-long reign of terror by General Rossum and her robotic troops. Breaking from her earlier pattern of sporadic activity and efforts to keep a low profile, she had embarked on a campaign of technological pillagery of breathtaking ambition and startling ruthlessness, crushing anybody who happened to have anything she might need or be able to adapt to the project.
Most of those, admittedly, were people for whom no one would shed many tears. The generators came from a Council base the General and her robots reduced to a smoking hole in the ground. Some of the harder-to-find materials were "mined" from the slag golems of Sharkhead Isle. The Sky Raiders and Gold Brickers had, er, contributed most of the exotic alloys. And the neighborhood Freakshow had been most helpful with regard to the electrical components.
A few of the final components, though, had required very special preparation using extremely specialized machine tools. The kind of tools that could only be found - in the Rogue Isles, at least - in an Arachnos research laboratory.
Crossing the spiders was nothing new to any of the Destined - indeed, the organization sometimes seemed to relish the idea of being defied by its "projects". Those incidents tended to be carefully controlled, though, and almost always involved one faction within Arachnos playing off against another. The complex politics of Arachnos allowed for certain kinds of betrayal under certain specific conditions... conditions which General Rossum's raid on the Precision Equipment Lab in Aeon City did not meet.
Now, standing in the warehouse with the fruit of all her violent labors complete and gleaming before her, Jennifer Rossum could not bring herself to care. What did it matter? She was leaving. Now. Tonight. The coordinates, carefully selected after much consideration, were locked in. The generators were running. In just moments she would throw the lever and escape the web of Arachnos forever.
As she waited for the charge in the capacitors to reach full power, she considered this prospect with unfettered delight, the first she'd felt since before her father's death - delight given a delirious edge by the mental and physical exhaustion of her month-long exercise in deliberate monomania. She couldn't stop her hands from working in and out of fists as she watched the needles on the meters crawl toward the green. Gone, gone, gone from this place!
There came a pounding on the warehouse door, and Jen's blood ran cold. She whirled and heard a muffled voice call from outside:
"General Rossum! This is Arbiter Tartakovsky! I know you're in there. Surrender now and you'll be allowed to live! This is your only warning!"
"No," Jen whispered. "Not now... "
"You were warned!" Tartakovsky's voice cried. "We're coming in!"
Weapon fire began battering the door. The sound snapped Jen out of her horrified reverie. Galvanized, she punched a key on her forearm computer, rousing her robot army from standby mode.
"101, 105, 111! Don't let anybody through that door! 82B, 94, back them up! 76, cover me!"
Silently, with perfect precision, Rossum's robots moved to obey their mistress. Her trio of 100-series battle drones trained their weapons on the rapidly distorting door, ready to meet the attackers' charge. The two protector bots, with their heavier armor and repair beams, raised deflector shields on their comrades and each other, standing by to provide supporting fire. And hulking, invincible-looking 76 moved closer to the General, its forearms transforming from manipulators to massive beam cannons.
Jen didn't dare summon a forcefield generator; the field might interfere with the machine, and the machine was critical. She looked at the gauges; they were nearly reading full power. She went to the platform, mounted it, and waited, her heart hammering inside her ribs. 76 assumed a protective position just in front of the platform.
The door fell, bursting inward and crashing to the concrete floor in a shower of sparks. The grey-armored form of Arbiter Tartakovsky stood behind a wall of black-clad Wolf Spiders and scuttling Arachnobots, all of which opened fire. Bullets and energy bolts sparked from the shields and armor of the battle drones as they counterattacked, pouring scarlet laserfire into the ranks of the enemy. Jen could see that they were all doomed. They were racking up a massive kill ratio, but Tartakovsky had brought the biggest force of Arachnos troops she had ever seen in one place. There was no way her robots would hold them.
No. 101 fell first, having charged into melee with a platoon of Wolf Spiders. No. 111 went next, cut down by an Arachnobot in the same instant that it blasted a Wolf Spider Huntsman halfway back out to the street. No. 82B tried to bring its repair beam to bear, staggering as the Arbiter pumped round after round from an anti-armor rifle into its structure, then collapsed in a sparking heap.
No. 76 was Rossum's oldest robot. It had started out as a prototype battle drone, the very first one she'd built, back in Paragon City before her life had fallen apart. Successive upgrades and modifications had seen it become the prototype for the protector bots as well, before its creator's skills had finally attained the near-apotheosis of design that was its current form. Alone among Jen's mechanical troops, it sometimes showed hints of personality, sparks of possible intellect. Though all her testing showed that it was still just a soulless machine, Jen had come to suspect that it had become more.
Now 76 moved without being commanded, stalking forward, knowing somewhere deep in its sophisticated logic core that it was its creator's only hope. Raising its arms, it targeted the Arbiter, massed energy within its nuclear power core, and unleashed twin beams of blue-white devastation that lit up the warehouse like the noonday sun as they raved through space toward their target. Arbiter Tartakovsky didn't even have time to scream before he ceased to exist.
The rest of his forces, enraged by this ultimate act of defiance - to attack an Arbiter was to attack the will of Lord Recluse himself! - doubled the fury of their assault. Even 76's massive armor couldn't withstand their focused fire forever, but the robot showed no signs of faltering. The carnage mounted as Rossum's ultimate robot fought for its mistress's life without regard for anyone else's, to say nothing of its own safety.
The sight of this uncommanded act of supreme loyalty filled the young General's eyes with tears. She almost missed seeing the gauges hit the green.
"Goodbye, 76," she whispered, putting her hand on the lever. "Thank you."
Then she threw the massive switch down.
The warehouse filled with a noise and light that eclipsed even the battle as the Tesla coils pulsed into action and the silver sphere above General Rossum's head burst to life, belching fat tendrils of lightning in all directions. The generators heaved and struggled, gauge needles wobbling wildly. Cables started to glow and smoke as Tesla's machine demanded all the energy the generator stack could give, hurling sparks and St. Elmo's fire everywhere. Jen winced as fingers of lightning traced all over her body, making the silhouettes of her bones flicker eerily through her suddenly luminescent flesh. It didn't hurt, exactly, but she felt a hideous, inescapable tingling throughout her body, as if every molecule in her physical structure were spinning and straining to fly apart.
The noise, the light, and the sensation mounted as one, climbing toward an inevitable climax - and when it came, it came with a thunderous BOOM, a tremendous burst of white radiance that half-blinded all the surviving Wolf Spiders in the warehouse, and a streak of white-hot agony that lit up every nerve ending in Jen Rossum's body.
And then, just as suddenly, it was over. The machine fizzed and sputtered as its inner light died, components fused beyond repair by the hellish energies that had just coursed through them. The generators conked out instantly, as if their very souls had been torn out by the machine's insatiable demand. The stink of burned electronics and near-melted metal filled the air.
And Jen Rossum...
... was still there, kneeling in the middle of the smoking metal platform, her head in her hands.
"It didn't work," she murmured, looking through her fingers, her good eye pinpoint-pupil wild, at the grimy warehouse and the army of Arachnos soldiers, stunned, but still bent on leaving with her head.
Then, as the full horror of her situation crashed in on her, she threw her head back and howled:
"No! No, no, nooooooooo!"
"Pull yourselves together, you scum!" the ranking Wolf Spider Huntsman bellowed to his troops. "For the murder of Arbiter Tartakovsky, the penalty is death! In the name of Lord Recluse, kill her now!"
Before any of the Wolf Spiders could move to obey, before the battered-but-functional 76 could move to defend his distraught mistress once again, a cold voice cut through the smoky air, chilling the blood of all those who heard it:
"No... I think not."
And then the warehouse was filled with the shrieks of the dead and the dying and the damned, the sounds of weapons and of bodies clattering to the floor, and the rending crashes of Arachnobots self-destructing.
Then there was silence, save for the muffled sobbing of a teenage girl who has felt all her carefully guarded hope for the future leave her body in a single horrible instant. Face buried in hands again, Jen hadn't even noticed the sudden, terrifying annihilation of her would-be executioners. She didn't look up until she felt a cold hand touch her shoulder.
"It was a bold effort, well-planned," said Ghost Widow calmly, her sepulchral voice touched with the faintest hint of compassion. "You are to be commended for your determination."
Jen blinked tears out of her good eye and stared at the arch-villainess. They were passing acquaintances of a sort; a few months before, General Rossum had warned Ghost Widow of a conspiracy against her un-life and received a cryptically worded but supportive note in return. Still, the spectral Widow was the last person she would have expected to turn up here and now.
"... What are you doing here?" she finally managed to ask through a throat still clogged with tears and despair.
Ghost Widow smiled very slightly.
"Repaying a debt," she said. "Safeguarding an asset. Assisting... a friend." Tilting her head slightly and fixing Jen with her disturbingly blank gaze, she added, "Choose whichever interpretation you prefer."
"Oh. I thought perhaps you simply wanted the honor of killing me for yourself. After all... " Jen shrugged hopelessly. "I've killed an Arbiter. Lord Recluse can't let that go unpunished."
"Arbiter Tartakovsky most unfortunately perished in a... mishap while observing a test of a new weapon you were developing," Ghost Widow said. "Regrettable, but quite accidental."
Jen stared at her spectral benefactor for a moment, then lowered her head, understanding.
"So I belong to you now," she said, her voice hollow.
"Essentially, yes," Ghost Widow replied matter-of-factly. "As it happens, however, I have no need of your services just now." She began to fade; by the time she spoke again, only her face remained, and even that had vanished by the time she finished saying,
"We will speak again one day, I'm sure."
Jen knelt on the cold metal platform for a few minutes more, surrounded by wreckage, carnage, and the fragments of her dreams of escape.
Then she dragged herself to her feet, stepped down, dispatched her surviving robots back to the Factory, and walked away without looking back.
This is what I am now, she told herself grimly. I became everything I swore I'd never be, banking on this one chance to make it all worthwhile and set me free. And now I'm marked. Forever. I've become what they said I was when they threw me in the Zig in the first place.
Fists clenching at her sides, she stood on the seawall and looked north, toward far-off, invisible, unreachable Paragon.
I'm a villain, she thought bitterly.
Ray Thornton looked out onto the doorstep of the townhouse he shared with his wife Sara, a puzzled frown on his face. He didn't recognize the girl standing on their stoop, a slender teenager dressed in ratty cargo pants and a black T-shirt, and sporting what seemed to be a naturally white head of hair - but her obviously cybernetic right eye gave him the impression that she was probably not selling magazine subscriptions to finance a class trip to France. As a semi-retired superhero of some standing, Ray, alias Midnight Call, recognized someone caught up in "The Life" when he saw her.
Opening the door, he asked, "Can I help you?"
The girl smiled. "I sure hope so. I apologize for turning up on your doorstep unannounced like this, Mr. Thornton, but I need help and I think you and your wife are the only ones I can trust. I'm... sort of a friend of Tasha's.
"My name is Jennifer Rossum."
"Sidestep" - A City of Villains Story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Ray Thornton created by John Trussell
With apologies to Christopher Priest
© 2007 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited